Saturday, June 29, 2019

Preserving stones

How did people pick out their gravestones before the internet? Maybe you want a big cross or a small rectangle. Fancy script or an image of a person. In the past, help with these options came in the form of from a travelling salesman carrying a big book filled with images of stone shapes and colors, etched plates, and examples of lettering. This was just one of the neat history facts unearthed at a gravestone cleaning workshop at the historic St. George’s Cemetery in. Newburgh.

Cemetery expert and Town of Delhi Historian Marianne Greenfield led the session on Saturday, June 22 which covered gravestone varieties, construction, and the care and restoration of stones which can be hundreds of years old. As owner of Delhi-based Gravestone Cleaning Service and member of the Association of Gravestone Studies, she is familiar with the right way to clean a gravestones using methods that are both environmentally and historically sound.

Greenfield’s approach to her work abides by the tenant of archaeology “to do no harm.” Household cleaning products are disastrous to stones. Chemicals like bleach work against the process or preservation by disrupting the matrix that gives the stone its integrity, particularly for very thin marble varieties. Gravestones are porous and absorb liquid. The only cleaning solution Greenfield uses is D/2 Biological Solution, a biodegradable liquid that removes stains caused by “biota,” or natural substances, like mold, lichens, mildew and algae. It is safe on architectural materials such as marble, limestone, granite, stucco, and more. The solution is non-toxic and doesn’t even require gloves or ventilation. It is safe to use around plantings and continues to clean historical monuments across the U.S. including the White House and Arlington Cemetery.

Greenfield’s workshop participants sprayed D/2 on the stones and let it sit for 15 minutes. What to scrub with? Not wire brushes which can nick surfaces creating opportunistic cracks that expand in winter when ice enters. Greenfield starts with a chiseling motion with wood chopsticks followed by firm but gentle motions with a plastic scrub brush. Greenfield discourages the use of weed killers like RoundUp which are not only environmentally toxic, but kill grass surrounding the stones creating brown sludge which loosens stones and leads to instability.

Many stones were covered with layers of lichen, which is a reaction between fungus and algae. Despite public perception lichen is not harmful to the stones and actually acts as a preservation feature. An acid eating theory was disproved when studies of the faces of newly-scraped lichen-covered stones revealed the lichen side to be 1/8” thicker than the side that was exposed to rain which contains elements of pollution. After scrubbing the stones were rinsed with water.

Greenfield pointed out different styles of gravestones at St. George’s Cemetery including obelisk, white bronze, and sandstone tablets. Some stones have a “popped” textured base that looks like crinkled paper. Other stones can have images of people. Greenfield talked about Civil-war era stones with faces that were created when photography was still in its infancy.

Participants saw a demonstration of “triangulation” during which an angled mirror directs sunlight onto the face of a stone, illuminating its surface for better visibility and photography. Greenfield touched on gravestone rubbings, a practice of recording etchings by covering an etched stone with paper and rubbing the surface with a wax crayon. Doing this ethically means not letting the wax touch the stone and she recounted a story about coming across a gravestone smeared with wax which transferred when a piece of paper was flipped and used twice.  

The workshop was an informative and accessible way to walk through this magnificent cemetery and get close up with restoration practices that preserve history.

Gravestone Cleaning Service: 
Association of Gravestone Studies:

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Moving Ice

During warmer months the Hudson River buzzes with sounds from boats, tourists, wildlife and waves. In winter new sounds emerge as the water continues to flow underneath frozen chunks of ice. Visit the river after a stretch of deep cold and you’ll find the sounds of pops and cracks punctuating the otherwise silent air of a winter day.

The Village of Cold Spring is a great place to hear the sounds of a river in a state of deep freeze. This village in Putnam County borders the Hudson with a park. Part of the Cold Spring Waterfront Project, the park’s lighting and railing on an existing large brick-paved dock were added in 2012. The scenic look out is an hour and 15 minutes from Grand Central Station and an easy walk from the train station.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Temple colors

When director Martin Scorsese was making his 1997 film Kundun, the story of the 14th Dalai Lama which is set in mid-20th century Tibet, he needed to film scenes in a traditional Tibetan Buddhist temple. Scorsese and his team trekked to the Ulster County village of Woodstock and found Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD) which is none other than a traditional Tibetan Buddhist monastery. The location’s main shrine room is so meticulously authentically designed and one of the few changes the crew made before filming was lining the wood floor with plastic followed by a layer of packed earth.

The site was founded in 1976 by His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje who leads the 900-year-old Karma Kagyu Lineage of Buddhism. He presently lives in India and KTD serves as his North American seat. This location for teachings was established as a response to the desire of Western students for an authentic Tibetan monastery for their studies.

KTD has lots of activities for people regardless of spiritual affiliation including teachings, retreats and classes. Daily sitting and walking meditation sessions are open to the public. The Saturday schedule features a guided tour of the monastery at 1pm followed by an optional intro to meditation class in the shrine room. Studies show a regular meditation practice helps participants strengthen concentration and clarity of the mind, and can simultaneously build a foundation for Buddhist practices if these are the goal. Visitors can sit in on an Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism on Wednesday evenings, and a Dharma Book Study Class on Thursdays. KTD’s website has a summary of each event to help visitors plan their trip.

The bookstore, called Namse Bangdzo which roughly translates to Guardian of the North and Treasure House, is open every day. It is filled with books, art, statuary, gifts, and Dharma (teachings) practice materials.

The group’s dedication to service extends far beyond the monastery walls. Participation in community activities includes volunteering with the region’s nonprofit, creative, and service organizations.  Traditional teachings stress the importance of service regarding environmental conservation, vegetarianism, and service to people in need.

Karma Triyana Dharmachakra:

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Sacred grid

A thangka begins with a grid of lines. Acting like a skeleton the grid frames the project so the artist can organize proportions. These traditional Tibetan Buddhist paintings can be as big as several yards diameter and contain hundreds of elements such as humans, deities, animals, and sacred objects. Some are scenes of famous Buddhist stories, others are portraits of colorful beings who symbolize values and ideas. Once a year we get to experience the thangka creation process right here in the Hudson Valley. Nepali-born thangka painter Sonam Rinzin makes the trip upstate once a year with fellow artists to host a thangka class for beginners.

Held in a community room at the temple at Tsechen Kunchab Ling in Walden, thangkas in various levels of completion are on display painted on canvas and stretched on frames. There is so much to learn before even getting to touch a canvas so students begin with paper, drawing small elements like a lotus flower, bowl of food, water or burning incense. They begin with a light grid shaped like a cross followed by a sketch of an image. Rinzin brings books of images, supplying students with lots of examples to see there isn’t just one way to draw a flower. He provides colored pencils and paint to make the images come alive.

Some traditional thangkas are intended for meditation while others are used in instruction. They appear in temples, museums and homes. Rinzin hosts thangka classes on Saturdays at Ethan Petit Gallery in Brooklyn. Tsechen Kunchab Ling is a Tibetan Buddhist temple established in Walden in 2001 to strengthen the practice in North America and give both renunciates and lay people a place to study and meditate.

Himalayan Tibetan Thangka Arts with Sonam Rinzin:

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Bad feminist

Tough conversations sometimes don’t end up happening. When topics like race, sexuality, poverty, gender, health, death, and finance are hard to talk about, progress slows, misperceptions remain, and solutions don’t emerge. Issues can suffer when we hold out for the perfect face to lead a movement, not knowing if that person will ever come—or if they even exists. Writer Roxane Gay’s 2014 book Bad Feminist focuses on the personal qualities of people who consider themselves feminists and examines our perceptions of who is “good enough” to speak and lead.

Each year Vassar College honors a writer as the William A. Starr Distinguished Lecturer. Students in the school’s first-year writing seminar program are assigned a book to read and the author is invited to campus to speak about their work. Bad Feminist was chosen as the 2018 book. Gay came to Vassar's Poughkeepsie campus on Wednesday, November 7 for her talk Roxane Gay: With One N.

Gay is an essayist and contributing writer for the New York Times. Bad Feminist is a collection of insightful and funny essays about how we view women and work in their service when they, or ourselves, enjoy things that are considered “non-feminist.” Can a feminist wear makeup and dresses? Can they have children? Can one love chocolate? Gay stressed the importance of embracing women who contradict themselves, and encouraged us to reject strict tests to label someone a feminist. Gay’s version of feminism welcomes women who are stay-at-home moms and those who like short skirts. But where do we draw the line? What is not acceptable? A member of the audience asked just that and Gay said the one issue we can’t compromise on is forbidding women to chose abortion. Gay broke up her talk of serious topics with her now-not-so-secret fondness for maxi dresses and how she has almost no knowledge of cars and no desire to learn how to solve a vehicle crisis on her own.

Gay talked about her struggles as a first-year college professor: the usual fears of public speaking and memorizing names, but also being the only black professor in her department at Eastern Illinois University and sharing that sense of aloneness and isolation with the few black students in her classes by ensuring they knew she was available outside of class if they needed to talk. A humorous frustration was trying to understand why her students wore breezy basketball shorts in the freezing Midwestern winter.

Gay’s reading happened the day after mid-term elections and she made sure to recognize the leadership gains by women, people of color, and candidates from non-Catholic or Protestant religions. Despite a loss, the margin of the gubernatorial race in Texas was a victory that laid out a blueprint for other Democrats. She talked about the challenges faced by candidates of color like Stacey Abrams and how polling voters is unreliable when race is involved as people lie to hide race bias. Gay touched on the role of trauma survivors in the progressive movement, particularly in Me Too stories. We need to be mindful about not encouraging survivors to cannibalize themselves for the greater good by giving in to people who don't help the movement by latching on to a personal story and pry out more juicy details.

Gay encouraged students of elite privileged institutions like Vassar to examine their school’s role in social movements by, for example, seeing where the school’s endowment is being spent.

The audience asked questions about the writing industry and I really liked Gay’s remedy for writers block: treat writing like a job. Her talk about genres helped the audience learn to use them in different ways: nonfiction is more immediate and urgent, while fiction gives readers and writers more time and space to explore an issue. Gay talked about social media as a great connector for writers to find each other, but to avoid insulating ourselves in social bubbles.

She talked about Twitter being conducive to conversation but limited in reach. Many people, including the ones we want to reach, simply are not using it. How do we reach the unreachable? By prioritizing our resources for groups outside our bubble, and knowing the difference between expending energy on people who didn’t vote and not wasting it trying to understand the mysteries of disaffected white men.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Fall changes

This time of year the Hudson Valley is famous for its fall foliage displays. Reds, yellows, oranges and browns catch the sunlight and fall to the ground just before snow comes. But what is actually happening when leaves change colors? During spring and summer, green leaves get their color from food-making chlorophyll. The chemical absorbs sunlight, turning carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates that sustain the trees. The leaves contain other pigments like yellow and red but these are masked by more prevalent green. Fall brings cooler temperatures and less sunlight which trigger trees to stop making food. Chlorophyll breaks down and disappears, leaving yellows, oranges, and reds.

What affects leaf changes? Mild autumn temperatures, not warm or freezing, are ideal. Severe drought can cause leaves to drop early, and violent winds rip leaves from trees prematurely

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Wall art

Kingston has storied history. This Hudson River city was the first capital of New York before it was burned by the British in 1777, and it lived richly in the 19th Century as important rail and canal transit hub. The oldest still-standing church, First Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of Kingston, was organized in 1659. The City’s three historic districts draw visitors for historical reenactments, trendy shops and riverfront festivities. The walkable 8-block Uptown Stockade District is an early settlement filled with Dutch buildings.

Kingston has also found fame for its modern public art. The 2000s brought a steady stream of wall murals to the city’s streets, some occupying the entire side of buildings. Themes vary and include environmentalism, migration, recognition of indigenous heritage, and other social justice issues. Works are dispersed throughout the city and visitors can stop at the arts council for a map enabling a self-guided tour. More murals are revealed each year during the annual O+ arts and music festival.

Many residents welcome the artworks and the business the festival brings each year, but the works find the dismay of some historical preservationists. How can a striking 20-foot-long Atlantic sturgeon painting get approval on a street where laws dictate paint colors must blend with and complement others? How can a 6-story mural of the Greek goddess Artemis cover decades-old historic advertisements painted on buildings? There are a bunch of answers that draw ideas from the U.S. Constitution’s protection of freedom of expression, the transient nature of wall art, and the need for neighborhoods to avoid stagnation and attract new generations.